Sunday, June 07, 2015

King Pharoah: Thirty-Seven and Won

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2015—Note the dateline, it's Sunday's, not Saturday’s. I needed time to look up strict meaning of surreal: It’s quite the day when events that you cannot control meld into youthful exuberance at an advanced age.

I was one the privileged 90,000 who had a ticket to the best show on earth. Every day I’m living the dream, lucky to turn a passion into my life’s work. The entire day unfolded literally before my eyes. Trainer Dale Romans had a horse in the Belmont, Keen Ice, and he made the following possible.

Romans and I are at polar ends on what our sport needs today, in his view humane treatment of the Thoroughbred with the proper amount of CCs of Lasix, and he demands properly enforced uniform rules with a graduated punishment schedule for offenders.

I want the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a proven non-governmental organization that adjudicated the Lance Armstrong case and also involved with NFL testing, a league that sometimes keeps its athletes on the field by any therapeutic means necessary.

I also favor an end to race-day medication, the elephant that’s trying to sneak out of the closet, once and for all. I know: Perfect World Dreamer. I prefer to think of it in football terms; throwing deep. In games of chance, perception rules.

Romans and I now enjoy a mutual respect, a sense of trust and fairness, because of the Rick Dutrow case. The three of us coalesced one afternoon in South Florida in late January. It was the first time I ever sat down with Dutrow, race interviews notwithstanding.

After interfacing for nearly two hours, I promised both that I would read the hearing testimony. Rick and Dale said that’s all they wanted. On Saturday, I was rewarded with a front row seat to history by Romans. It just happened that way; karma, kismet. And Keen Ice ran the best he could; a crisp third-place finish.

They called her the Ice Queen but not for reasons you might think. She is a family friend who attended the Belmont with me and once had turned her brother’s talent and garage into a million-dollar-a-year business as co-founder of Ice Sculpture Designs on Long Island.

Alas, a yarn with local color and Divine intervention. Bill Maher would hate this story.

So we would be sitting in Keen Ice’s box and the Belmont horse I fancied, Frosted, sounded like a natural exacta to my friend’s parents. But something got in the way of the Hunch Bet of a Lifetime; a very special race horse named American Pharoah.

The colt is now on his way to becoming a legendary figure in the sport. If he can close out the season in similar fashion in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—without compromising his main rival at the start, of course—he will have earned that distinction. On Saturday, American Pharoah retired the Eclipse trophy for Horse of the Year 2015.

We sat gawking all day. To our left and down one row was Todd Pletcher for a race or two. I saw Kiaran McLaughlin at the end of the day and thanked him for giving all fans an extra thrill when Frosted loomed the only danger entering the straight. He smiled, the look on his face of a man proud of his horse.

“We were just second best today,” he said when prodded about a softer pace that many had expected. Then he averted his glance to peer out over the continuing winners’ circle ceremonies he so wanted for his team and said, with pride, “great for the game.”

One shining moment on a glorious day in June. I’ll never forget how Romans’ gesture turned a press box wretch into a kid flush with excitement. I’m sure I wasn’t the only horseplayer who stood a little taller when American Pharoah began to widen his advantage.

Of course, everyone in racing is celebrating the first Triple Crown since 1978. Hell, it was his fourth win in eight weeks over four tracks at four different distances by a horse whose pedigree was supposed to stop him five weeks ago.

The Test of the Champion began smoothly, no one seriously compromised, a small stutter-step notwithstanding, as the leaders raced into the clubhouse turn. As expected, American Pharoah was on the lead with Materiality on the chase.

Frosted was in a tough spot, Joel Rosario having to decide whether to stay in the clear outside or drop over to the fence. He knew he couldn’t take back because Belmonts aren’t won from the clouds. Consequently, he would up between rivals for much of the backstretch run.

I and perhaps many others awaited the pace challenge from Materiality and Johnny Velazquez that never came, surprising for the gate-compromised Derby competitor and wire winner of the Florida Derby.

If 48-and-change and 1:13-and change weren’t enough to seal the deal, then a brilliant tactic from Victor Third-Time-the-Charm Espinoza was. Espinoza, separated himself from the group soon after entering the far turn. The slow pace takes nothing away from American Pharoah's achievement; clearly the best of his generation won on the square, impressively.

Frosted, in no man’s land at that point, worked his way over to the fence with momentum while under brilliant handling from Rosario before tipping out to loom a viable threat.

But Espinoza and American Pharoah had more and kicked away, never leaving the issue in doubt. There would be no Real Quiet reprise for Bob Baffert this day; no Smarty Jones drama for two generations of fans who wanted to see history made in the worst way.

My late, great friend Cary Fotias always said that of all the major sporting events, nothing beats the roar of the Belmont crowd at the top of the stretch with a Triple Crown on the line. On Saturday, that was true after the wire as well.

If I were insulated in the press box, the original plan until Romans asked on Thursday if I needed anything for Saturday, I never would have felt this Triple Crown, or watch the scene unfold first hand.

There was Joe “Riders Up” Torre embracing Baffert after the Hall of Famer stopped celebrating with his family.

There was Jerry Jones, too, smiling widely, making arrangements so that his guest, Bill Clinton, could enjoy the festivities. POTUS’ mother Rose was an Oaklawn Park regular. My friend snapped a picture of the President talking with Dr. Ruth outside the Trustees Room.

The Governor of the State of New York, the agency that has taken custody of the New York Racing Association, and which has been slow in allowing it to be privatized, sent a representative for the trophy presentation instead.

A half hour after the race, we walked out on to Hempstead Turnpike and into the spring night. American Pharoah had an easier time winning the Belmont than we had finding a cab. But all’s well that ends happily, and memorably.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

American Pharoah: What Price Greatness?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 21, 2015--This is no news flash: American Pharoah is quite the race horse. It takes a special Thoroughbred to go on a four-race roll at the highest divisional levels in this day and age.

Winning four races in an eight-week span against the best your generation has to offer takes a special horse, indeed. American Pharoah won the Derby with class and courage; he took the Preakness with class and speed.

Yes, American Pharoah is extremely gifted, to date the best of his very talented peer group, but I’m not yet ready to concede the other ‘G’ word: Great.

For me, that will take one more victory, his fifth in 11 weeks, including three which have been won in tandem only 11 times in history.

Perhaps my standards of greatness are unrealistic and unfair, like the Kirk Douglas character in the film noir classic “Young Man With a Horn.” Rick Martin was a trumpet player so outstanding that he needed to reach for an unplayable note, one that only his imagination could conjure up.

But I will concede that if American Pharoah can make it in New York a fortnight from now, he can make it anywhere, anytime, in any place he chooses. He will have earned that right.

Should American Pharoah make history, there will be pressure and a serious appearance fee attached to running in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

And God knows the troubled Thoroughbred industry in the Garden State could use a boost, positive visibility that goes along with a Triple Crown winner’s appearance.

Besides, Ahmed Zayat needs the money.

If Bob Baffert can pull this off—he’s already collected seven Haskell trophies--then all he need is bring back American Pharoah a month later and do it all over again in the Derby of Midsummer, the Travers at Saratoga.

If the colt doesn’t run in New Jersey, it’s may be because the trainer has a number of talented three year olds to take his place in the starting gate; Dortmund for one, who is being freshened as you read this.

But knowing how the Zayats feel about the game, how grateful and sporting they are, they should, if the fates allow on June 6, accept only the most prestigious challenges down the road.

I’m sure the secretive breeders that own his stud rights would at once cower in fear but acquiesce. Meanwhile, I don’t get it. Someone please explain this to me; why all the hush-hush?

With his minimum stud value already assured as a would-be repeat champion, there would be no downside to launching a barnstorming racetrack tour, one that ends up in Lexington this fall, future physical issues notwithstanding.

Of course, we all must guard against getting too far ahead of ourselves; ask the owners of Shared Belief.

True greatness demands challenge and overcoming adversity, even one as unrealistic as winning the modern version of the Triple Crown. Admittedly, the timing is the same, only today’s American Thoroughbred isn’t that hearty.

We breed Thoroughbred Ferraris in this country, not Subarus. Speed, like sex, sells. What good is circumnavigating the globe if you can’t get there fast enough with the latest piece of equine eye candy?

And it doesn’t help that to assure yearlings make sure to the auction ring making the best appearance they can--a little nip here, a little corrective surgery there, and voila--a mercurial equine star whose brilliance will blind until it flames out.

So, is American Pharoah truly, uniquely special, “one of the ones,” or will he prove to be a fallen waysider. History will acknowledge one or the other, a fortnight from now, or a year down the road, hidden breeding commitments notwithstanding.

And there is a consideration as to whether Zayat, who still controls the colt’s racing destiny and having won medallions of glory, will begin going for the gold while he still can. Time will reveal all.

Preakness Post-Script: I have two confessions to make: I’m a huge Gary Stevens fan, admiration that has only grown since he made one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports.

But he disappointed me with his terse post-race quote, an economy of words that was the shortest comment supplied by any of the Preakness participants.

Stevens was a big pre-race storyline. As the rider of surprising second favorite Firing Line, he was interviewed by Bob Costas before the race and was glib and candid as usual.

And he had plenty to say on the NTRA conference call a week before the race, generous with his time and insight that was very much appreciated.

He did tell Tim WIlkin of the Albany Times Union: "When it really started raining, (Firing Line) had his ears pinned and he was not a happy camper, Stevens said. "We started galloping off and the further we galloped, the higher his head got and he just started sulking."

But after easing his mount on Pimlico’s far turn with almost three furlongs remaining, he offered only this to the Pimlico publicity department and the Triple Crown audience: “We stumbled out of the gate and that was our race today.”

His disappointment is understandable but as a top broadcaster--and one in waiting after he re-retires--he should get what is expected of him. Firing Line, Derby lead changes et al, was the Preakness buzz horse not named American Pharoah.

Serious racing fans know that in all likelihood, he “took care” of his horse with no chance of victory, one that was having extreme difficulty handling the sloppy surface.

But the majority of the Triple Crown audience doesn’t know this, there was reason to explain what happened and why, the reason he did not persevere with Firing Line to the finish post.

Perception is reality, especially given the likelihood of an unsophisticated racing audience, and Stevens should know this, too, especially as one of sport’s most visible faces.

But let’s be clear: Transparency is little more than a 12-letter word. The cardinal rule in this game is to protect the value of the horse at all costs. It is the reason that every horse couldn’t be doing any better, why every workout is just what the trainer wanted.

If the game wishes to survive and become more than a niche sport in the future, if it wants a place in the front row of sports, in the big-time, it should act like it.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Game On…Rained On…Game Over

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 16, 2015--In the end, the Preakness players told you all you needed to know.

In the walkover from the Preakness Stakes barn, Bob Baffert was asked how American Pharoah’s condition was; would he be ready for the challenge, coming back in two weeks?

Would we see the same horse that dominated the Arkansas Derby before showing his class and grit three weeks later in Louisville?

Baffert said just what you’d expect him to say, “but you still need that luck,” he said to the national television audience.

After the race, Victor Espinoza was asked on his way to the winners’ circle after spread-eagling the Preakness field from pillar to post whether he had planned the winning front-running gambit.

“After the rain I didn’t want to be behind horses,” Espinoza said. He didn’t need to think about strategy and the trip any longer. Espinoza knew he had to quarter-horse out of there and take the race to his rivals from the jump.

And he took Preakness 140 by taking the lead then taking the prize. Now Espinoza and American Pharoah can take their act on the road just one more time, this time for the biggest prize of all; racing immortality.

There will be plenty of time to chew on whether he can or whether he can’t do just that. As Baffert said afterward, “I don’t even want to think about it right now…It’s tough up there, I’ve been up there. I just want to enjoy this.”

Espinoza, loaded with confidence and buoyed by the knowledge that a sloppy track would be just fine for both himself and his partner then went out and sucked all the drama out the crown’s middle jewel with another dominating victory.

He put pedal to the metal and gave the Preakness field a thorough beating, winning with ears pricking, once again skipping over slop with those long and bounding strides.

In doing so, American Pharoah extended the Preakness record of his trainer to a perfect 4-for-4 coming back in two weeks following a Kentucky Derby victory and in doing so his rider became the first jockey to attempt a Triple Crown sweep for a third time, two back-to-back.

And if the Zayat family had some good fortune coming their way in for heartbreaking defeats in Triple Crown races past, they got it: The heavens opened as if right on cue.

The result in all probability would have been identical, even if the Preakness were conducted beneath sunny skies on a dry track, such was the colt’s superiority at Old Hilltop on the third Saturday in May.

The pre-race storyline in the 60 minutes leading up to the event was nicely handled by the NBC analysts, who reminded the audience that the overzealously spotted Mr. Z was the only other member of the field with sloppy-track experience.

Stablemate Dortmund seemed to handle the surface OK; more acting on it than relishing it. He was put in a serious drive on the final turn, made some progress, but never seriously threatened. Tiring badly late, he probably will receive a rest after a full prep campaign.

If the start was critical for American Pharoah, it was just as significant for second favorite Firing Line. The ground broke out from beneath him at the start, leaving rider Gary Stevens with no options racing into the first turn.

But in the final analysis, it mattered little. He was wide throughout, uncharacteristically far behind the leader, and started jumping up and down leaving the five-furlong pole.

It may turn out to be merely academic but Firing Line hated the going and mercifully was eased with five-sixteenths of a mile remaining. A very nice colt that never had a chance; he deserved a better fate.

Lightly raced Divining Rod distinguished himself even if he tired perceptibly in deep stretch, either due to distance limitations or the fact he was the only horse to make a sustained run and sincere challenge, until Espinoza turned American Pharoah loose.

Tale of Verve distinguished himself too, and clearly is developing very well. He looked like a Trojan horse leaving the saddling area and finished with good late energy; an excellent race to build on and a credit to Dallas Stewart’s management.

So, will the third time prove a Triple Crown charm for Espinoza, and will be this attempt at a sweep be lucky 13 for those that have followed Affirmed into Belmont seeking the same prize the past 37 years?

Well, like Baffert says, it’s tough up there.

Written by John Pricci

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